Monday, March 3, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“GATHERING EVIDENCE” by Caoilinn Hughes (Victoria University Press, $NZ28); “HORSE WITH HAT” by Marty Smith (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
A couple of months ago, when I was guest-editing the forthcoming issue of Poetry New Zealand, a poem crossed my desk which struck me as dazzling in its ingenuity, precision of statement and understanding of physics. I of course snapped it up and wrote a grateful letter of acceptance to the poet, of whom I had never heard before. The poem was called “Every Body Continues in a State of Rest”. The poet was Caoilinn Hughes. To my surprise, I find that this poem is one of the 40 that make up the expatriate young Irishwoman Hughes’s first collection Gathering Evidence. I don’t know whether to be miffed that the poem appears in the debut collection before the relevant issue of Poetry New Zealand itself appears, or to be delighted that a wider audience will get to see it.
It is a very good poem.
“Every Body Continues in a State of Rest” depicts the actions of a couple out on a cycling trip as they relate to the laws of physics and the facts of human fatigue. Hughes situates scientific laws in an everyday setting. This proves to be one of her preoccupations. The same technique recurs in another of the collection’s poems “Bruisewart”, where the patterns of DNA are perceived in a daisy chain.
An Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure once told me that “the subject of a poem is merely the place in which the poem happens”. I sort of understand this. Poems are not good or bad because of what they are “about”, but because of how they perceive things, how they use language, how they are structured and so on. Yet spite of all dispute, what a poet chooses to write about tells you much about the mood of a volume. Subject matter and style are intertwined.
Over a decade ago I recall my friend the late Bill Sewell raging that there were now too many poems that “weren’t about anything”, and swearing that he was determined to produce poems that were “about something”. (He went ahead and wrote his volume The Ballad of ‘51, which was very definitely “about” New Zealand labour politics.) He was reacting – as I do – against twee Writing School exercises which do not look beyond themselves.
Caoilinn Hughes I think also has a rage to “say something”, and as a debut volume, Gathering Evidence has inevitably poems about childhood, which in her case dovetail with a somewhat jaded view of Ireland. There are some poems observing bums and vagrants on the Irish scene. There is a poem (“Cynophobia”) about her childhood fear of dogs; a poem about spewing up on her first communion dress and not thinking much of religion anyway; and a really dispiriting final poem “Legacy” about the rural traces of Ireland’s violent history. More amusingly, and even more ironically, there is “Impressions of Ireland” in which Hughes speaks of New Zealanders who visit Ireland reverentially “to link themselves to a thrice-removed / history, as if their own shades of jade were not as profound”. The implication is that New Zealand visitors simply lack an appreciative eye for their own country. In this volume there are also two or three poems built on a backpacking trip in South America.
More than anything, however, Gathering Evidence is “about” science and “about” an attempt to weave meaning out of a purely materialist understanding of the cosmos. Quite appropriately, Robert Corish’s cover illustration shows a woman staring into a microscope as her head explodes into colourful thought.
From the very opening poem, “Avalanche”, there is the sense that imagination and feeling are trumped by the brute facts of physical reality for, as the mountain avalanche comes bounding down, “My cries could not contend with this parade / of physics”. Because of this perspective, Hughes’ view of science is not a simplistic wonderment. She is aware that scientific daring can be lethal. Her tough poem about Enrico Fermi and the building of the first nuclear chain reactor in Chicago (“King of the Castle”) addresses both the excitement of science (“American science must have seemed like alchemy”) and its hubris as Fermi and his cohorts act with indifference to radiation poisoning: “They had not considered cancer sullying their stomachs like slugs; lymphomas / suckling their spines, lymph nodes….” The poem about Marie Curie (“Rational Dress”) seems more celebratory, more of a protest against the refusal of Marie’s contemporaries to accept her genius because she was a woman – but even here this is counterpointed by references to the scientist’s self-poisoning by radiation. “The Moon Should Be Turned” addresses the matter of exploitation in medical scientific endeavour – the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were grown posthumously by cancer researchers. The two poems about the cosmologist Johannes Kepler (“God Always Geometrises” and “Harmony of the spheres”) are more straightforward in their admiration. But then there are “The Transit of Venus” and “Pacific Rim” in which science (in these cases 18th century Enlightenment science) is situated in its dodgy social context.
While I found Hughes’ approach bracing, I do have one small criticism of this volume. I could have done with a few explanatory notes. I appreciate that it is not good to weight poetry down with explanations, but I confess to not getting all the cultural referents. “On the Content of Brackets” and “Looting Roses” are clearly poems about old women, but appear to reflect situations that could have done with greater clarification. As for the title poem “Gathering Evidence”, it appears to be founded on a true anecdote from the early history of modern science – but I am barbarian enough to want to know which one.
Having said this, I still found the collection a lively, sharp and intelligent one – a “good read” if such phrases are permissible in the criticism of poetry. Late in the volume, Hughes essays a poem about poetry (“Is It a Kind of Bell Toll?”), which ends with the self-deprecating observation “The endeavour is mostly trivial. The sound is mostly din.”
This is definitely not an accurate observation on her own poems.
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Marty Smith’s poetry collection Horse With Hat comes out of a sensibility quite different from Caoilinn Hughes’s. If Gathering Evidence is the work of an analytical ironist, Horse With Hat is the work of an instinctive memoirist.
I’ll begin with a comment on Horse With Hat as a physical object. It is a large-format book as collections of poetry go, and is illustrated with five two-page-spread collages assembled by Brendan O’Brien. They are surreal images, nearly all involving a horse, created in part by using images taken from an old Smith family Bible. This last detail points to another fact about Horse With Hat. Its contents derive largely from the circumstances of the family into which Marty Smith was born – especially the generations of her parents and grandparents, whose collective photo appears near the beginning, with relevant dates appended. They were a sheep-farming and horse-riding family, many of whose male members served in the Second World War.
In effect, most of the poems in this volume serve a personal mythology. Although the poet makes adult judgments and draws on events from her adult life and experience, the perspective most often is that of a child caught at the age when parents are still ten feet tall. It is the perspective expressed in an early poem “Dad’s horses” where “I am at their knees looking up / at the lode star of the stirrup / and my four-storey father.” Not that the child’s-eye view is always worshipful and credulous. Children, as well as observing sharply, can make quite acute and damning comments about their parents and elders. Marty’s Dad stands accused, in various poems, of wearing a hat all the time; and mocking other people’s driving; and repeating the same anecdotes; and controlling who uses the house telephone and when; and sometimes expressing angry opinions about those bloody bolshie unionists who ought to be locked up.
In other words, he was a farmer of his age and generation.
Then there was the odd situation where the poet’s father and her grandmother lived at different ends of the same farm and didn’t get on with each other. Elements of this repressed feud seep into the poems. Quite consciously, an emphasis on period details dominates a number of the poems – an acknowledgement that the mind-world depicted is now one that has passed away. “He went away with hair and came back bald” is a collage-like poem (Smith likes the paste-up form), which recreates the myths and half-truths of a relative who may or may not have served in the war. “Emphysema for Aunty Gwen” reminds us of a world in which smoking was taken for granted and enjoyed, even if the poem’s coda gives us a nasty reminder of the consequent health issues. There is also a poem about the arrival of television in the household – apparently at the same time as the first moon landings. The preoccupation with horses is the most consistent thread, ranging from the poem about a race-winner to the poem “Lot 165” which is told from the horse’s point of view and (dare I say it?) approaches the Black Beauty territory of sentimental anthropomorphism.
One again, as you can see, I have been chattering about what the poems are “about” without commenting on their quality, thus artificially divorcing style from substance.
Time to nail my colours to the mast.
While I found this an amiable volume, I was not particularly drawn to its style. A poem like “Because I am short-sighted the distance shimmers” takes the same collage form as the book’s illustrations, giving fragments of a child’s imagination to create a world-picture – everything from Baron Munchausen to the Bible to geological knowledge. “Radar” is a long poem composed of snatches from different conversations. “Ratbaggery” is an anthology of incidents in which people are inclined to lose their temper. The best I can say is that they did not appeal to me. With all of them I began to long for the rationality of an adult mind to shape this raw material and stop playing the naïve child.
The open form and collage can become a site for showing off and burbling on.
For this reason, I took most pleasure in the few more traditionally formed and well-wrought poems, such as “A mile here, a mile there”, whose form conveys the intended sense of serenity and calm; and “Agnus Dei”, the most perfectly crafted poem in the book – five 6-line stanzas with a regular rhythm, the elevated title ironically contrasting with an unglamorous aspect of being a child on a sheep farm. The opening line – “I carried the lamb in a sack on my horse” – ambling like the horse itself – is an invitation to the craft of poetry itself as well as being a calm prelude to more distressing matters.